Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

If you've stumbled upon here randomly, then I suggest you check out my biography and other pages.

Please Note: This site, and the social networking profile pages connected with it, reflect my personal interests & views which do not necessarily represent those of organisations I am affiliated / associated with.

24/06/2012

Healthy Holy Silence

Another article to get my attention recently - and again, more one that confirms existing views & values than challenges - is Mark Vernon's piece in the Guardian on the tradition of silent prayer / meditation within Christianity. I have written in the past on this blog of the profound things I have experienced at Quaker meetings (namely Sheffield Quaker meeting) and having experienced this, the 'noisiness' of services within other denominations becomes quite stark.

I also think Mark Vernon is right to place emphasis on the health benefits of silent meditation (including children) - particularly in our culture which continues to be dominated by the Protestant work ethic, and subsequent high rates of anxiety and depression. 

Martineau's Pilgrims

I've been busy getting my other blog up and running these past few weeks, hence the continued lack of regular posting on this blog (I'm thinking "well, no one can serve two masters..." as I write this!). However, I have kept up-to-date with various news and discussion via my Twitter account - and have become increasingly impressed with the output from the religion section of the Huffington Post

In particular, it was heartening to happen upon a piece by Christian Piatt titled "The Fallacy of Statements of Faith" in which the writer argues against creeds established in a top-down way. Speaking of faith traditions in which there is a centralised leadership who enforce written statements of belief, Christian Piatt notes:
"When it comes down to it, what seems to me to be at the heart of such traditions is not so much faithfulness but control. If your inclusion in a system is contingent on you conforming to the beliefs of the leadership, then that institution has the power either to coerce you into compliance or to exile you for disobedience. But the problem is that it sets up a dynamic that actually encourages people to lie. The fact is, no institution, no matter how powerful, can indelibly change the hearts and minds of its members. They may outwardly claim uniformity, but the inner sanctuary of a human being ultimately is off limits to anyone other than God and that individual. We can use fear, punishment, or even positive incentives to get people to fall into place, but there's never any guarantee that they actually believe what we're trying to force them to believe."
 Going further to add:
"From what I can tell, Jesus never made his disciples sign a statement of faith. In fact, when his followers pressed him for more specifics on what to believe and how to act, he would tell them a story rather than nail it all down in clear terms for them. If it's good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me."
I think this sums up the Free Christian mindset which I, admittedly standing an ocean away and just looking in, have long guessed was alive and well in parts of the Disciples of Christ church in the US - and as a member of this movement, Christian Piatt confirms this further. Another possibility for American Christians wanting to find this expression of faith, I guess, would also be parts of the United Church of Christ.

I have recently spent time visiting a variety of denominations in the UK (a result of moving cities and trying to find a local church) and I have been pleasantly surprised to find that this spirit is also alive and well in parts of the Church of England, General Union of Baptists, United Reformed Church and Religious Society of Friends - as well as the 'natural home' of self-avowed Free Christians, the General Assembly of Unitarians and Free Christians.

I sometimes think I would like to see some effort by Free Christians to come together formally - in the same way Progressive Christians, Unitarian Christians and Liberal Christians come together via societies, networks and associations - but I have also come to realise the beauty of Free Christianity, much like the Emergent Church movement, is that it has no central organisation and explicit sense of tradition (beyond the short-lived 'Free Christian Union' of James Martineau). By remaining in this paradoxical state of being (a movement without a movement) it avoids becoming a niche group with its own 'groupthink' and de facto 'floor up' creed. Instead it shapes Christians who are able to cross boundaries ('free range Christians') to engage with other Christians across a spectrum of beliefs and traditions, to the benefit of both.

05/06/2012

Inclusive Jubilee?

As Elizabeth II and other members of the establishment attend a Christian service of thanksgiving at London's St Paul's Cathedral as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in Britain, I happened to stumble upon an Ekklesia article about the republican protests. In it, Symon Hill - one of the directors of the Ekklesia thinktank - is quoted as saying:

"I was really heartened by the cheer when I explained that jubilee was originally about economic justice... The Book of Leviticus says that every fiftieth year, debts should be cancelled, slaves set free and the economy rebalanced. As the gap between rich and poor in Britain grows ever wider, this is the sort of jubilee our society needs – not a celebration of wealth, privilege and military might.”

I didn't know this, and find this aspect quite interesting - particularly given last year's riots in London and the debates in the aftermath over why young people (from a range of economic backgrounds) feel excluded from society.

Will Self also makes an important point in BBC News Magazine, noting:

"...while our society may pay lip service to equality of opportunity, our fundamental values remain those of inherited wealth and privilege... Yes, deference is the key - and with each bent knee, each ma'am and sir and Your Majesty, we reaffirm that this is the way things are meant to be." (H/T: Stephen Lingwood, Reignite).

And finally, whilst most of the media of all political stripes have given scant regard to republican views (the Daily Mail going further to slip into their reporting how Republic protesters 'taunted families'), it was heartening to read this editorial from The Observer which again looks at the contradiction between Britain the meritocracy and Britain the monarchy.

03/06/2012

God Save Our Democracy

As part of the republican minority in the UK, I feel it is my duty to share some well-written views of other republicans with readers.
There are more voices to be heard via #jubileeprotest on Twitter.

02/06/2012

Borg's Trinity

As most readers will figure from my Unitarian & Free Christian church leanings, I am someone who identifies with the Christian faith - indeed, regards myself as a committed Christian - yet I am also someone who has struggled to understand trinitarian doctrine, to the point of rejecting it. For some fellow Christians this would in their eyes stop me being regarded as a Christian. So be it. I think for others though there would be an acknowledgement, openly or quietly, that the Trinity is one of the tenets of mainstream Christianity that proves hardest to grasp.

Recently I spent a day in Knutsford - a quaint Chesire town - and whilst browsing in a bookshop came across Marcus Borg's 'Speaking Christian' book which looks at the various aspects of Christian terminology, and belief, that people struggle most with. It is a book I highly recommend. In it he writes the following about the Trinity:
"The Christian doctrine of the Trinity affirms, in shorthand, "one God in three persons." Like the Nicene Creed, the doctrine of the Trinity is a fourth-century product. And just as the Nicene Creed is a problem for many contemporary Christians, so also is the Trinity.

A major reason for this is the word person and its common meaning in modern English. It suggests a distinct center of personality and thus a distinct being. When person is understood this way, the Trinity seems to affirm that God is a committee of three people, God the creator, God the Son, and God the Spirit.
Thus it is not surprising that many Jews and Muslims, Christianity's closest relatives, understand the Trinity to be an abandonment of monotheism and an affirmation of "tri-theism." But this understanding of the Trinity, whether by Christians or Jews and Muslims, is not the ancient meaning of the Trinity.

The language used in the Trinity (though not yet the doctrine) goes back to the New Testament. In the 50s, Paul's blessing at the end of one of his letters refers to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you" (2 Cor. 13:13). In Matthew's Gospel, written around 90, the risen Christ commands his followers to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (28:19).

But the doctrine of the Trinity - meaning an officially formulated teaching - took time to develop. Implicit in the three articles of the creed, it became explicit later in the fourth century, especially in the brilliantly poetic theology of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Naziansus, known together as the Cappadocian fathers, named after the area in central Asia Minor (now Turkey) where they lived.

Why do Christians affirm a threefoldness to God? Many religions affirm a twofoldness to God, implicitly or explicitly. Even Christianity's monotheistic relatives Judaism and Islam do. For both, God is transcendent and immanent, more than everything and yet present throughout the universe. Hinduism also affirms a twofoldness to ultimate reality, fully transcendent as brahman and immanent within each of us as atman. Religions, including monotheistic religions, are typically binitarian, to use a word that is not a word.

The question is why Christians add a third to this twofold affirmation about God. The answer is obvious - because of Jesus. The reason that Christianity moved from the twofold monotheism of Judaism to a threefold monotheism is because of the significance of Jesus for his followers in the first century and continuing in the centuries since then. He was for them the decisive revelation of God - and continues to be that for Christians. This is what makes somebody Christian: seeing the decisive, normative revelation, disclosure, epiphany of God in Jesus. The Trinity is thus a testimony, witness, tribute to the centrality of Jesus for Christians.

In both Greek and Latin, the meaning of the word translated into English as person is quite different from its modern meaning. In the fourth century when trinitarian doctrine was formulated, the word persona in Latin and its Greek equivalent prosopon referred to the mask worn by actors in the theater. Actors wore makes not for the sake of concealment (as we might wear Halloween masks today), but to play different roles. The etymology of the Latin persona reflects this; its roots mean "to speak through," "to sound through." In a quite literal sense, persona as a mask is something an actor speaks through. Applied to the Trinity, the ancient meaning of persona / prosopon suggests that for Christians the one God is known and speaks in three primary roles or ways: as creator and the God of Israel; in Jesus; and through the Spirit.

The above is sometimes called an external understanding of the Trinity, because it concerns three primary modes of revelation, three primary roles in which we experience and know God. Some theologians have argued that the Trinity is also about internal relations within God (or within the Godhead, a term often used for the unity that underlies the Trinity).

In a general way, the suggestion that there are internal relationships within God makes an important claim. It produces a relational model of God and this a relational model of reality. Reality is not static, but dynamic and relational. But when theological disputes break out about what those internal relationships are like, I wonder whether we are trying to know too much.

The most famous of those disputes is the one that caused the Great Schism within Christianity in the eleventh century. The issues was whether the Holy Spirit "proceeds" from "the Father" or from the "the Father and the Son." The Western church affirmed the latter, and the Eastern church the former. In 1054, Christianity split in two over this issue, producing Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Each side excommunicated the other.

There is something at stake in this issue, even as it's unclear that the two sides in the conflict had any inkling of it. And that is if God's Spirit "proceeds" from "the Father and the Son" (and not from "the Father only"), then God can be known only through Jesus and thus only in Christianity. But if God's Spirit "proceeds" from "the Father only," then it is possible that God can be known apart from Jesus and thus in other religions.

To return to the main point, speaking confidently about the nature of internal relationships between the three persons of the Trinity is problematic. How could we ever know? But when we focus on the external meaning of the Trinity, its claim is clear. God is one (Christians are monotheists), and God is known to us in three primary ways."
I think this reading of the Trinity - as an allegory for that which we call God, as way of meditating on the importance of the life and teachings of Jesus in Christian experience - is something I can really connect with. But I can't subscribe to it in a literalist way or as a precursor to church membership.

As Rob Bell says in 'Velvet Elvis' (another book I highly recommend), concepts such as the Trinity should remain flexible rather than becoming fixed. That way they allow each one of us to stretch, bend and play around with them, and in turn to jump further forward in our understanding and experience of the Sacred - springs not straitjackets.

The Trinity is a piece of beautiful poetry, in which rests much truth to be found, but it should be left there - otherwise it becomes a barrier to many who wish to explore the Christian faith and make a committment to church.